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Commentary: Superintendent Needs to Reach Out to Teachers

By Shirley Banko

Buffalo, NY – Buffalo School Superintendent James Williams has called for broader support in his effort to "reform" Buffalo schools. His call follows on the heels of a recent cover story in a national news magazine and a two-day discussion of education in America on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Time magazine has gone so far as to title its cover story "A Nation of Dropouts" so it is obvious that at least some people are ready for the discussion about reform of our educational system.

What is not so apparent is how the superintendent's "reforms" are going to address the issue of quality education for Buffalo students. If he wants Buffalo to get energized over his contract problems with the teachers' union, he probably won't get much buy in. Even the courts have said he violated the union agreement with his petulant demand that teachers be coerced into accepting a single health care provider. If that's what the superintendent wants us to get energized about, he is better advised to put on his adult attitude and negotiate what he wants instead of trying to force feed teachers.

Buffalo has been documented as one of the poorest cities in America. Fully two-thirds of the school population in Buffalo is African-American and the vast majority of those kids come from below poverty level households.

Single parent families predominate. Social problems resulting from the children of such families are myriad. Many of these problems must be addressed prior to or concurrent with effective teaching. In many classrooms, the teacher's role has evolved from that of educator to include the duties of social worker, surrogate parent, mediator, referee, and law enforcer.

The superintendent's reform plan is to get help from the state to discipline teachers and use a single health insurance carrier.

If he wants to get Buffalo energized about education, Mr. Williams ought to pump some energy, some impetus, and some creativity into education. If he wants students to get energized, he needs to stimulate them with preparation for the real world they face in Buffalo. If he wants the business community to get enthusiastic, he needs to show them what s in it for them as employers. He needs to make connections between what kids are learning today and what they bring to the workplace tomorrow.

It is not an impossible task. We are spending a lot of public and private money to create a medical technology corridor along High Street. Why not spend some of that money to build a health careers magnet school? Not every student in Buffalo is going to go to college but each of them will need a job. Health care is a big industry in this area. Why not start preparing them for jobs that currently exist? How about establishing a media careers magnet? Not every job in the media field requires a journalism degree. Why not start preparing our young people for some of the technical jobs in the broadcast and media fields? The library system is in crisis so why not pump some life into it by a fuller integration of the library into the educational life of the city through a Great Books curriculum? Some other possible areas of applied creativity in education are sports administration, building and construction trades, and entrepreneurial instruction.

If Mr. Williams really wants a total community involvement in education he can get it by creating a symbiotic relationship between Buffalo schools and the community they serve. Participation creates energy and enthusiasm. Inclusion gives students a heightened sense of relevancy in what they learn. Creativity stimulates the learning process. Mr. Williams aims far too low in his call for community participation if he confines it to lobbying for restrictive legislation in the teacher contract.

Listener-Commentator Shirley Banko is a retired Buffalo school teacher.